Our One Chance to Fix Yonge Street
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Our One Chance to Fix Yonge Street

The re-imagining of the city’s main artery must look to the future, not the past.

Yonge Street, looking south, towards North York Centre. (Photo courtesy of Gil Meslin via Twitter.)

It’s clear that Toronto is changing; it’s not so clear that our political leaders have noticed. The debate about the revitalization of Yonge St. in North York Centre, where the cityscape is now dominated by residential towers, highlights the problem.

RE-imagining Yonge’, a city initiative covering the area between Sheppard and Finch Avenues, goes to City Council for a final vote on March 26. The initiative would improve Yonge St. by widening sidewalks, adding safe road crossings, installing a bike lane, and providing benches and green space.

A key to the proposed changes is the narrowing of Yonge from six to four motor traffic lanes. This change is opposed by Mayor John Tory even though the project is consistent with Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan and a fitting response to the high number of pedestrian deaths that Tory himself has called a crisis.

Many city politicians continue to think of Yonge as a highway despite the obvious conflict with the use and enjoyment of the street by local residents and visitors. At a recent public hearing, one resident described Yonge as a “canyon” his elderly father was afraid to cross. A pleasant streetscape would also attract visitors from around the city to the benefit of local retail, dining, and arts venues, fulfilling one of the original goals of North York Centre as a ‘downtown’ in the suburbs.

By 2031, cars are projected to make up only 36% of the travel mode share for residents in the area, according to the city study. Facilitating the trend to walking, cycling and transit — instead of perpetuating a 1950s transportation model — makes perfect sense, especially given the rare opportunity to re-shape a major street. As local councillor John Filion, who energetically supports the project, recently told the Toronto Star: “We’ve only got one chance to get this right.”

Motorists passing through the area — most of them from outside the city and sitting alone in cars — wouldn’t be denied their use of Yonge as a thoroughfare or even face significant delays; they would simply be asked to make do with four lanes. In fact, North York’s intentionally overbuilt road system allows motorists to bypass Yonge altogether. Motorists who are sympathetic to the safety objectives of the revitalization initiative could play their part by ride-sharing, taking transit, or avoiding rush hour.

As usual, in Toronto, the proposed bike lane is controversial. In May of last year, the public works committee, which includes Tory appointees Giorgio Mammoliti and Stephen Holyday — council’s most dedicated champions of the single-occupant car — sent the proposal back to city staff to study an alternate, parallel route for the bike lane. Staff subsequently reported that the alternate route along Beecroft Rd. was feasible but more expensive and that a Yonge bike lane remained the best option. The committee, chaired by Councillor Jaye Robinson who leads the city’s road safety plan, nonetheless voted against the staff proposal. (Curiously, Robinson absented herself from the vote.)

Cyclists prefer Yonge for the same reasons as motorists: it’s direct, convenient, and provides access to attractive retail, entertainment and public venues. By contrast, Beecroft Rd. would give cyclists a safe route to a cemetery and a lawn bowling field, but virtually no other commercial destinations.

As long ago as 1979, city consultant Barton-Aschman reported in ‘Planning for Urban Cycling’ that “utilitarian cycling occurs primarily on the same major urban arteries and during the same times of day as heavy vehicular traffic.”

Putting bike lanes where they’re convenient for motorists instead of cyclists has predictable consequences. In the late 1970s, the city rejected a bikeway on Bloor despite the street’s popularity and convenience for cyclists. Instead, a bikeway was installed on parallel Harbord St. By October 1983, the city’s Works Commissioner, Ray Bremner reported that cyclists still preferred Bloor, where cycling volumes had also increased. Almost 40 years later, Bloor finally got a bike lane – albeit too late for cyclists killed or seriously injured on Bloor in the intervening years.

We know that motorists’ appetite for public space isn’t likely to ever be satisfied. Various road widenings and the TTC’s subway extension to Finch by 1974, which put transit vehicles underground, haven’t relieved road congestion on Yonge. As a city, we should stop acting like we owe every solo motorist who wants to drive in Toronto the public space to do so even when it’s at the expense of the safety, well-being, and vibrancy of our neighbourhoods.

Public road space is one of our city’s most valuable assets. As population densities increase, the unbridled dedication of that space to the exclusive use of motorists is inconsistent with other city-building objectives. It’s time to re-imagine Yonge St. by recognizing that our city is changing – indeed, it’s already changed.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and the author of the online guide Road Follies. He sat on the Coroner’s expert panel on road safety in 2012.